The Pronoun Problem


(Photo credit: Mike Kanert)

What to do about gender neutrality?

It was so easy when I was growing up. We were taught that “he” referred to all humans, of either sex, and we believed it.

In fact it didn’t and, as an excellent analysisI just came across points out, throughout history it hardly ever has. (Carolyn Jacobson, the University of Pennsylvania graduate assistant who wrote the piece I just linked to back in 1995, uses this wonderfully oddball example to prove that we don’t read “he” as referring to both men and women: “The average American needs the small routines of getting ready for work. As he shaves or blow-dries his hair or pulls on his pantyhose, he is easing himself by small stages into the demands of the day.”)

In fact, the use of “man” and male pronouns to refer to human beings reflects a society in which men are the only beings considered fully human. As the second wave of feminism came along to spread this news, we looked for alternatives. It was relatively simple to substitute “human” for “man” and “humanity” (or even “people”) for “men.” But the problem of singular pronouns—what to do about “he” and “his”—was a much greater one. The problem first arose sometime in the 1970s. Forty-plus years later, we still haven’t figured out how to deal with it.

What to do about gender neutrality?

First, some ground rules. Some folks are still on the fence about this. Hold-outs continue to use “he” as a universal pronoun. But every major stylebook advises against it, and I, personally, think it is inexcusable.

“He” and “him” refer to a man, a boy, or a male animal. Period. You can no more use “he” to refer to people of both sexes than you can use “boy” to refer to a grown African-American man. This is not something anyone should have a choice about anymore–it is part of the evolution of our understanding about human rights and the role language plays in creating—or shutting down—change.

Beyond that, however, you have some choices. Sadly, none of them is very good:

1. You can replace he with “he or she” and him with “him or her.” He or she who hesitates is lost.

2. You can skip the “or” and say “he/she,” “him/her,” or opt for a slimmed down look and say “s/he” (which, however, begs the question of what to do about “him” and “her”). S/he who hesitates is lost.

3. You can try to re-write the sentence completely to leave out pronouns: The person who hesitates is lost.

4. You can turn every problematic singular sentence into a plural one: Those who hesitate are lost.

5. In certain contained circumstances, you can alternate the use of “he” and “she:”

A person who isn’t quite sure what to do next has several choices:

  • She can consider her options carefully, and make a thoughtful decision..
  • He can ask others for advice.
  • She can hesitate, and be lost.

The problem is, solutions like these are cumbersome at best, unworkable at worst. “He or she,” which is more clear than alternating the use of “he” and “she,” and just slightly more professional and formal than “s/he,” can result in impossibly convoluted language, especially when it involves other pronoun forms. Consider:

“Every employee should talk to his or her manager about what he or she needs to do in order to complete his or her project.” It’s enough to make the writer gag and the reader jump off his or her ledge.

Option four, re-writing a sentence to turn it from singular to plural, is the one I see recommended most often, but it works better in some cases than in others. “Employees should talk to their managers about what they need to do in order to complete their projects,” is not too bad, except for the possible confusion about whether individual employees each have multiple managers or projects or just one apiece. But compare these alternatives:

Every man must listen to his conscience, following the voice in his head.

All people must listen to their consciences, following the voices in their heads.

Not only does the original sentence lose quite a bit of poetic (if clichéd) punch in the pluralized version, it veers dangerously close to a prescription for mass schizophrenia.

Reader, there is a fifth option. It’s in common use informally, but represents a radical step for formal grammar and is far from universally accepted. Nonetheless, it is out there, being debated and approved by even some among the grammatical establishment. It’s the use of the singular “they.”

The fact is, as grammarians will point out, the singular “they” (if a person hesitates, they are lost) has been around for a long time. As Arnold notes in the link above, it can be found in the works of Shakespeare, Austen and Dickens, among others. The arguments against its use seem to have originated in the same misguided attempts to mold English around Latin that led to the now-abandoned  argument against splitting infinitives.

The singular “they” allows us to put away convoluted attempts to neutralize gender in one swift move, no muss, no fuss. Although it can sound odd, I have gradually come to the conclusion that it is the most elegant solution we English-speakers have to this problem-that-will-not-die.

That doesn’t mean I use it. Most of my work involves writing communications for others and I know usage of the singular “they” in formal writing is still unacceptable to most. Even in my own work, it still often sounds awkward and grating, and I find myself re-writing sentences to avoid it. 

But having decided it is, ultimately, the best solution, I have vowed to start using it more. It’s a matter of conscience for me, because ultimately, it’s about removing the language’s built-in bigotry. As for you, you’ll have to decide for yourself.  Everyone must listen to their conscience, and do what they think is right.

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Read Like a Writer

Brooklyn Museum - Artist Sketching

You know how art students are forever hanging around museums with their sketch pads, copying paintings? My bet is you haven’t spent a lot of time wondering why they do it, because it just makes intuitive sense. To understand how the artist placed a line, created a sense of space, got those proportions right—it surely helps to walk a mile with his pencil.

So why doesn’t it occur to aspiring writers to copy text?

Actually, I have heard of the concept, odd as it may seem: somewhere I remember reading about a writer who taught himself the trade by copying out literature he liked. And of course it’s out of fashion now, but a few generations ago schoolchildren were regularly put to work memorizing poetry.

Still, copying out well-written prose probably seems like a bizarre exercise to most of us. I’ve never done it myself. Nonetheless, if we’re not going to literally sit down and copy something, we can still find ways to bring the same kind of attention to work we admire—or even work we don’t. You read things differently when you read them like a writer. But it takes some practice.

Maybe you’ve heard of lucid dreaming  (also called “conscious dreaming”). It’s the dream state most of us experience on occasion, when, while still asleep, we become aware we’re dreaming. Often it happens in the last moments before we awaken, or just as we’re falling asleep, and it happens without us trying. But it turns out that for centuries people have tried to consciously induce lucid dreaming, for all kinds of reasons. Some have used it as a way to control the direction of their dreams. Today one of its uses is to help people who suffer from nightmares. (Go ahead, google it. You’ll find dozens of websites, seminars, and products claiming to hold the secret to producing lucid dreams.)

Reading like a writer is like lucid dreaming. Even as you immerse yourself in the text, you maintain a smidgeon of awareness at another level, paying enough attention to consider why the author did what she did in the way she did it.

When you read an article that pulls you through from one paragraph to another, creating curiosity and suspense, you stop to consider what it is about the writing that creates these responses. When you find a word that surprises you, you stop to think about why it is surprising, how it is more typically used, and whether it works in this new context.

Sometimes I bring my writer-consciousness to bear even when nothing in particular has caught my attention. If I’m reading the narration of an event, I stop to think about how the author got from Point A to Point B. What details did he include? What did he leave to my imagination—and did that work? How did he use quotes (if nonficition) or dialogue (if fiction) to advance the narrative?

Reading like a writer is most pleasant when you’re reading something that’s well-written (well, reading is most pleasant when you’re reading something that’s well-written) but it can be just as useful when you’re reading something that’s not. If I have trouble understanding something, I try to fight the immediate assumption that the problem lies with my inadequate brain, lack of sleep or rapidly declining attention span, and instead consider what about the writing is making it so difficult to grasp.

Similarly, if I’m finding something boring, I stop to consider what has made it that way. Sometimes, of course, it’s simply a topic that doesn’t interest me. But I’ve noticed that in the hands of a really good writer almost any topic can become interesting.

Another kind of bad writing, which I think is unique to fiction, is when the writer inserts herself too strenuously into the narration. This often happens in stories that take place in other times or unfamiliar (or imaginary) locales, when the writer tips over some invisible line from providing necessary background into creating a dumping ground for her research notes. Although I don’t write fiction, I still find it fascinating to try to figure out where this invisible line lies—how much does the writer need to say and how much should be left to the intelligence and imagination of the reader? Surely understanding this helps me write better informational prose.

You might wonder if taking this approach spoils the pleasure of a good read, but I’ve found that not to be the case—it only enriches it, letting you more consciously savor the experience. So if you’re not already taking your mental sketchpad out every time you open a newspaper or power up your Nook, give it a try!

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Render Unto Caesar

Plagiarism is rarely a concern for internal communicators. In many cases, whatever corporate program you’re writing about has been written about before, and you’ll have heaps of existing material to steal from.

It’s not only fine to do this, it’s often important to do so. The way you talk about a program or policy is part of its branding. It generally makes sense to have some sameness in your messages.

But, as with Spellcheck (and, Lord help us, Autocorrect), cutting-and-pasting brings dangers of its own. Just because someone has written about a program before, doesn’t mean what they’ve written is right for what you’re writing now—even if you’re the one who wrote it in the first place. (Got that?)

I can’t say it enough: always remember your audience.

  • If you’re writing to promote a program for employees, tell them what’s in it for them and tell them how to sign up. Don’t tell them the arcane details of arrangements you’ve made with the program’s vendor.
  • If you’re writing to describe a policy in a “best place to work” application, don’t include the mechanics of enrollment or list the legal restrictions you include in your internal benefits materials.
  • If you’re writing to urge a behavior that would be helpful to you (say, using online benefits enrollment instead of handwritten forms), don’t focus on how it makes your life easier, write about how much easier and faster it is for employees.

As with so many rules of communication, this all probably seems rather obvious. Advertisers don’t say “buy our smelly overpriced soap so we’ll meet our quarterly revenue projections.” They say, “buy our smelly overpriced soap so you’ll find a date.” (Note, by the way, that they also don’t usually say, “buy our yadda yadda soap so you’ll smell good.” That’s just an intermediate benefit. Another marketing rule of thumb is to focus on the ultimate benefit—in this case, catching that elusive man.)

But, perhaps because of how easy it is for those of us churning out internal communications to cut and paste, remembering your audience is a rule that (ironically) is often forgotten. Need some copy on the merger? Here, take it from this press release. And in goes the copy, without ever a thought put to the fact that the what the public wants to know about the merger (or what your company wants to tell them) is probably very different from what employees want to know. Introducing a new manager? Let’s just throw in the bio she uses for speaking engagements—never mind that it has little, if anything, to do with who she’ll be managing and what projects she’ll be overseeing.

We’re all busy. We already have to put the copy together and edit and proof the copy along with whatever millions of other things our job demands of us. But taking the time to take just one last look at whatever we’re about to publish, checking to see that it actually communicates what needs to be communicated—that can save a whole lot of time and trouble down the line.

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Reflections on the Lowly ‘Graph

I’ve been thinking about paragraphs.

Increasingly, I find my paragraphs devolving into single sentences, like the one above. Surely this isn’t how I was taught? I remember concepts like: “A paragraph is a collection of related sentences dealing with a single topic.”

I remember something about a topic sentence, followed by at least three sentences to support it.

I remember something about indenting, too.

When I write now, though, I usually just work on one paragraph until it seems like it’s time to go on to the next. As with so much else in writing, I don’t think about it a whole lot. So I’ve been thinking, do those rules I was taught still apply?

I looked it up.

It turns out the statement above, “a paragraph is a collection of related sentences…etc,” can be found in the Purdue Online Writing Lab, known to fans (like me) everywhere as the “Purdue OWL.” . (All right. I copied it from there.) The OWL is an excellent resource for basic information about grammar and writing conventions. So I must assume it is right in this case. In fact, I recommend checking out the link if you’re at all confused about paragraphing, because I’m here to say it contains some highly useful information.

For instance, it also addresses the topic sentence/supporting sentence structure question. And it turns out to be more lenient than my junior high teachers were on the subject, saying:

Although not all paragraphs have clear-cut topic sentences, and despite the fact that topic sentences can occur anywhere in the paragraph (as the first sentence, the last sentence, or somewhere in the middle), an easy way to make sure your reader understands the topic of the paragraph is to put your topic sentence near the beginning of the paragraph.

But, despite what the OWL says, I’m still not convinced a paragraph is always defined by its subject matter anymore. At least not in the case of online content.

Because here’s what’s happened since I went to junior high. Actually, since way after I went to junior high, but let’s not dwell on that. Most of the written matter I consume has migrated to a 14” screen. Or way smaller. And, not the least bit coincidentally, my attention span has diminished dramatically, along with, I suspect, the attention span of just about every other sentient being. This last phenomenon, I think we can agree, is a direct result of the ease with which we can (and do) switch among reading matters, pause for some viewing matter, stop to change Pandora channels, get interrupted by the chirp of a new text message, etc.

(Speaking of short attention spans, I was bemused to hear that one of my literary heroes, Philip Roth, had announced his retirement. Can a writer retire? Really? But I was also fascinated, horrified and just a little relieved to read  that he—even he— claims to now spend a good amount of time daily playing with his iPhone.)

Ok, where was I? Paragraphs.

I submit that on paper, paragraphs have a dual function. They organize ideas into discrete, content-driven bundles. And they make text easier on the eye. Paragraphs on a screen have the same dual function, with this important difference: thanks to all the myriad distractions inherent in getting information from a screen, easier on the eye moves from a secondary to a primary function of paragraphs.

In other words, when you’re writing for a screen, your paragraphs need to be short. And shorter.

Often, they will be one sentence.

Or less.

And even with short paragraphs, you may still need to guide your harassed reader down the page with judicious use of boldface, bullets and other such tricks.

You still need to think of organizing information according to subject, just as you were taught. But you also have to think in terms of organizing according to visual appeal.

Oh, and about those indents. They’re still doing it in books and newspapers. My kids are still doing it at school. But I sure haven’t seen a whole lot of evidence of indented paragraphs on the small screen. My guess is indents just make it harder to take in information, and are easily replaced by judicious use of line spacing.

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How Will It All End?

Beginnings are nerve-wracking. Middles can be tricky. But the highest circle of writing misery, in my book, resides in figuring out how to close. Ever since the days of high school essays, I’ve hated writing conclusions.

In conventional essay writing, the role of the conclusion is to summarize. But if what I’m writing is a page or two long, as it generally is, I’m pretty sure I can count on my readers to retain and synthesize what I’ve just said. Saying it again is simply redundant—and boring. (I had an English teacher who once warned that any paper sporting a last paragraph that began, “Thus we see” would be stamped with an automatic “F.”)

Besides, in non-academic writing, like journalism and blogging (including content for employee newsletters, magazines and blogs), conclusions aren’t necessarily expected to summarize. The role they play is vaguer—just a kind of tidying up, providing a little closure.

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, a piece you’re working on will flow naturally to just the right ending. You  might have gotten the perfect quote or the ideal anecdote that sums it all up. For example, if you’re writing about a new program your company is introducing, you could end with a quote that takes it into the future:

Gisela Simone, Senior VP of New Business Strategies, summarized what many senior leaders apparently feel about the new Speed Processing Interactive Terminal program, saying, “I have every confidence in SPIT. It’s going to revolutionize our ability to react to negative events.”

Depending on the piece, you also might be able to end by winding back to the beginning. As I wrote way back in March, starting a piece with the human side of a story is a great way to draw readers in. If your employee newsletter article begins like this…

When Hank Dinsmore, Regional Marketing Director, needs background information for a product, he generally calls the LuceBoltz reference librarian, or takes a hike up to the 6th floor library, himself. If the librarian has the information he needs on hand—great—if not, Hank completes an acquisition form to order the reference document and puts aside his project until it arrives.

“It’s time-consuming at best,” says the veteran LuceBoltz employee, “And it’s frustrating, since I know that information is out there.”

But things are about to get a whole lot better for Hank. Thanks to Air Literature, our new online aircraft research database, Hank will be able to locate and download the information he needs within minutes, straight from his desk. So will every other employee at LuceBoltz.

 …your ending is practically written for you:

As for Hank, he’s already making a list of the work he’ll be able to catch up on in his newly freed up time, once Air Literature is up and running.

Another option, if you’re writing in a relatively casual format, is to end with a play on words or other bit of humor. I’ve noticed this is a favorite ploy of NPR reporters—so much so that I can often predict the last sentence of a piece I’m listening to. For example, one reporter summed up a story about the presidential candidates’ break from campaigning during last week’s hurricane in this way:

That’s not say the political campaign is completely on hold. People tuning in to storm coverage are likely to see a flood—of political ads.

Yet another idea, especially if you’re writing on-line, is to end with a question or other invitation to respond:

What are some of your ideas?

How have you dealt with xyz in the past?

How do you use the Cat Cab program?

Because I, myself, have so much trouble ending articles and posts, I try to keep a close eye on how others do it. But what’s fascinating is that I often forget to notice. That’s because in a strong piece of writing, the conclusion doesn’t stand out as something apart from the rest of the story. It’s such a natural progression from the rest of the piece that it just flows to a natural close.

It’s a goal to aspire to. But sometimes, I just give up and let a piece of writing dangle, without

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Truth and Consequences

Watching the Democratic Convention a couple weeks ago, I was reminded of the thin line between promotion and hype.

This is not a partisan blog. If I sound like I might be about to pick on the Democrats, it’s only because their situation got me thinking. Consider. They are the party of the incumbent president at a time when there’s only one thing everyone seems to agree on: the economy is in a bad way. Who started it, what was done about it vs. what should have been done about it, whether we are better or worse off than we were four years ago—all that is open to debate. But that we are in an economic morass, with no easy answers in sight, is surely a given.

Combine this reality with the fact that the only real remaining functions of a modern party convention are to ignite passion in the base and perhaps sway a few undecided voters. What’s an incumbent party to do? Somehow the Democratic party had to demonstrate they take the situation seriously, while at the same time conveying an upbeat, rosy picture of how things stand. Demonstrating you take a problem seriously, without actually admitting there’s a problem, is not an easy thing to do.

(John McCain faced this situation four years ago—almost to the day. As the economy avalanched downward, he went for the optimistic view, announcing: “The fundamentals of our economy are sound.” Instead of boosting morale, it made him sound thoroughly out of touch—and the rest is history.)

Why am I suddenly writing about politics? I’m not, of course, I’m writing about communicating. McCain last time, and Obama this time, have had to walk the same fine line many a corporate internal communicator has to walk: fostering pride and boosting morale without losing credibility. In other words, promoting, but not hyping. As these candidates have found, this is especially difficult when times are bad.

So how do you do it?

You’re honest without being a “Debbie Downer.” If you’re careful, honesty can even be upbeat. “Yes, we’re going through a rough patch right now. But here’s what we’ve done to address it so far. Look how far we’ve come! Stick with us and see how much further we can go!”

Actually, the fact-checkers tell us neither party’s convention speeches would win a prize for accuracy. Apparently, politicians don’t care and neither do many of the American people. But I wouldn’t try this trick with employees. When it comes to their jobs, people are going to both know and care when you fiddle with the facts.

You’re careful of context. Some pundits have suggested that Obama’s convention speech was slightly toned down because he had a heads-up that the jobs numbers due to be released the next day were not going to be as strong as expected.

Similarly, be careful not to break the news that there are going to be lay-offs right next to a feature story on “what employees tell us they love most about working here.”

You muster your facts. Bill Clinton is a great speaker, but it wasn’t just his performance that caused so many to label his speech among the highlights of the convention. He used hard data (or as hard as politically-motivated data can get) to tick off, one by one, the ways things have improved over the last four years.

What’s the good news you can share? What can you remind employees about how your benefits, compensation, record of lay-offs, culture or working conditions stack up against competitors? What have you enhanced lately—or refrained from cutting back on? Remember, this has to be fact-based though—simply reminding employees that you’ve won a “great place to work” award, for example, could backfire in hard times.

You encourage ideas and input—but only if you are going to take them seriously. What’s one of the most famous and often-quoted speeches in modern political history? JFK’s inaugural: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Sure enough, Obama echoed this in his convention speech: “As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating work of self-government.”

People don’t want to feel powerless in the face of bad news. Promote a “we’re all in this together” spirit by asking for suggestions and feedback about whatever problems your organization faces. Internal social media platforms (moderated but not whitewashed) are an excellent forum for this, especially if you can get senior leadership involved.

What are some ways you’ve walked the line between promotion and hype? Share your ideas with a comment below!

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Killing the Monsters

On the whole, I don’t believe in synonyms. Such is the magnificent complexity of the English language that only rarely do two words mean exactly the same thing. Even if the dictionary gives two words the same definition, they almost never carry the same connotation, which is what makes using the thesaurus such a treacherous game.

But sometimes, in some contexts, one word can be used as easily as another. That’s when some corporate communicators can always be counted on to reach for–the longer word. After all, why say something in one syllable, when the same thing can be said in two or three?

Hence we substitute “difficult” for “hard,” “utilize” for “use,” “assist” for good old “help.”

If we’re lucky, we land the big one: a whole phrase that can be substituted for a simpler word. Hence the steady creep of phrases like “at this point in time” and “in this day and age.” (“Now,” anyone?)

I assume this tendency stems from a misguided concept of how “formal” or “professional” language should sound. But it’s absurd. The fact is, professional language should (generally) be free of slang. It should steer clear of taboo or derogatory words. Spelling and punctuation should be correct. Grammatical rules should generally be followed. But there is absolutely no reason to use a cumbersome word or phrase when a simpler one will do. And there’s a major benefit to using simpler language: your communication will sound more natural–closer to the spoken word.

Think about it. When’s the last time you used “attend” rather than “go” in spoken conversation?

Even if you’re talking to your boss, do you say, “I need to make a determination about whether this project goes forward?” or do you say, “I need to decide whether to continue this project?” Most written communications benefit from being as close as possible to casual speech. You want your audience to be able to take in and understand your words as easily as if you were explaining something to them in person.  More easily, in fact, because on paper you’ve had time to organize your thoughts. You’ve left out the “ums” and “uhs” and “I means.” You’ve checked your facts and explained your terminology.

When you get ready to write, write down what you’d say to someone standing in front of you. Then clean up the grammar, spelling and organization, check your accuracy, root out clichés and jargon. You’ll be writing professionally, without hardening your language with an artificial veneer of “professionalism.” To see how well you’ve done, read your copy out loud. If you find stuffy, unnatural, “professional” language, kill it.

No need to feel conflicted about this act of violence. Consider it self-defense. If you don’t kill your monster words and phrases first, they will kill your communication.

This is a short post, coming to you from Florence, where I’m basking in the sounds of another gorgeous language. But I’m still available to talk to you via email. How about sharing some of your examples of misguided professional language?

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